Friday, 8 June 2018

A stop-over in Dubai

We headed back to the UK for my brother's wedding and my best friend's Hen do. It was an EPIC two weeks but that's another story. What I want to write about here is our two day stop-over in Dubai...

We always fly Emirates so thought that it was about time to spend more than a couple of hours in the airport and see some of the city. We landed at about 1am and stayed in a fancy hotel, the Jumeriah Zabeel Sarayt was lavish and exactly what I imagined, but it was so big it felt a bit impersonal and I did kind of wish we had stayed in a smaller place like we usually do. We also had very loud neighbours which meant we only got a couple of hours kip. The breakfast the next day made up for it though. It was a buffet of every breakfast food we could want. We ate then sunbathed at the huge pool until the afternoon.

I had booked us onto an overnight desert safari tour as it had come highly recommended by friends and the internet in general. It was a bad start as the driver was a whopping two hours late, but we tried not to let is bother us too much and went on to have a good time quad biking and dune bashing in a 4x4. 

At sunset we ended up at a little camp site to eat some food and watch a fire breather/dancer. We were very confused by the fact that everyone else at the site drove off the minute the performances ended. We were the only tourists left along with our driver and a couple of people who must have worked there. We asked where our cabin was and were promptly told that we had to sleep on a mat on the sand. No privacy, no tent, no sleeping bag, no nothing. Gobsmacked and confused we left the campsite immediately and I've been trying to get reimbursed ever since. The company, Sougat Tourism, have been an absolute nightmare so I would strongly discourage anyone else booking with them if they can help it.

We booked a late room at a hotel next to Dubai Mall which was lovely, then went up the Burj Khalifa the next day to take in the view. I was surprised at how barren Dubai is. There are a few skyscrapers (most of which follow the architecture of other buildings like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben), and between the skyscrapers are construction sites, dust and sand. I'm not sure what I expected, but I was generally quite underwhelmed by the place.

We flew back to the UK later the same day and had a whale of a time catching up with friends and family in sunny London and the West Country. The stark contrast between the vibrancy and beauty of England vs Dubai was huge. I'm so grateful I am able to travel around different parts of Asia, but even more grateful I am from such an incredible place as the UK!

Monday, 5 March 2018

Japan: beautiful, weird and wonderful

Phil I were in Japan together just over two years ago in December 2016. It was one of the most incredible holidays, so I had high hopes for our return this year. 

We arrived at lunchtime for sushi and a wander around Harajuku, we then headed to Shinjuku for another delicious meal at a tiny teppanyaki restaurant called Teshu (or something similar). We sat along the bar and had the chef serve us wagyu sashimi, grilled seafood, beef and veggies, all cooked in front of us and absolutely delicious.

We ended the night at the famous New York bar at the Park Hyatt: Drinking cocktails, listening to a live jazz, and pretending we were Bill and Scarlett...

I felt pretty rough the following day so slept a lot whilst Phil watched the Tokyo marathon runners outside our hotel. We then headed to the samurai museum and met a couple of friends at a strange immersive restaurant called Alcatraz E.R in the evening.. Only in Japan.

Thankfully I felt alot better the next day for our trip to Nikko, Okunikko and Utsonamya. Nikko is where the Shogun shrines are and a place of tranquil beauty. Okunikko is a little further up in the mountains. It was freezing cold but amazing to see the huge icy waterfall and watch the sun set over the sulphur lake.

On the way back to Toyko we stopped in Utsonamya which is where Phil lived a couple of years ago. We ate at a famous gyoza restaurant, had a night-cap at a cute little bar and wandered through the miniature golden gai. I thought Utsonamya would be a quiet, sleepy town, but it had so much character and I can see why Phil loved living there so much.

The next day was Tuesday and our travel day to Hokkaido where we spent the remainder of our trip. We flew into Sapporo then took a scenic 3 hour bus ride into Niseko. I have never seen so much snow! The roads had been cleared to leave huge walls on either side  which must have been 10ft high.

Our pal had picked an awesome apartment for us all in Hirafu village, right next to the gondola. It was called Landmark View and I'd recommend anyone to stay there. We had dinner at a cute little bar called Big Foot and got into bed like excited children ready for skiing the next morning.

We got up early, tested our ski legs and sped up and down the mountains until the evening, stopping only to meet our two other pals who arrived at lunchtime to join us.

No research had been done about where to go in the evening so we were lucky to stumble upon a secret little place called Buddha Bar which was practically invisible from the outside. We ate a lot of gyoza and met a fun Aussie who insisted on doing everything backwards, because, that's what Aussies do right?!

Shitty weather hit us the next day so we were in limbo for a while until we learnt about some runs open in Hanazono around the side of the mountain. Phil and I accidentally skied down a black off-piste run which was terrifying but also a bit of a proud moment for us.

We all went to an onsen in the early evening to boil ourselves. They split the males and females and stipulate for everyone to be nude - a weird concept for us straight-laced Brits, especially sitting on a tiny stool afterwards to wash ourselves. Fun though and definitely helped the aches and pains.

We found another izakaya (a joint serving Japanese tapas) and met three lovely Aussie guys who we went onto Bar GYU+ with. A night of drinking, jumping into walls of ice and snowball fights ensued until sunrise...

Not much to comment on the next day as we nursed our hangovers and ate ramen but we were thankfully back on the slopes for our final day as weather has cleared up. I'm a bit of an idiot though... I kamikaze skied again and managed to injure my knee and tear by calf muscle which meant a few trips to the hospital when we'd landed back in Singapore. 

If I had to describe Japan in three words I would say it was beautiful, weird and wonderful. Despite the sickness and injury, it was an excellent trip and I'm sure we will return for skiing again next year.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Angkor Wat Temple Run

My plan is to run a half marathon every two years to keep my fitness in check and given my last half was in 2015, I was due a run before the new year. I had heard great things about the Angkor Wat run so I recruited some friends and together we flew to Cambodia to run 10k and 21k as the sun rose over the temples.

We arrived a day prior to the run so had lots of time relaxing by the pool at Sokha Angkor Hotel, eating delicious food at Vibe and Olive, and collecting our race packs. We also managed to get over to the temples for sunset which was stunning.

The race started at 6am so we had to get up at about 4am and battle to queues of tuk tuks and pedestrians leading into Angkor Wat. We were a bit disappointed that the route had changed this year due to a diplomatic event taking place at Angkor Wat, however it was still a beautiful run and we saw lots of other temples along the way.  I was hoping to finish in under 2hrs but ended up with a time of 2hrs 13mins in the end.

We celebrated (in silence because we were so exhausted) at a lovely brunch place called Sister Shrey and Phil and I said goodbye to our pals who had to fly back ready for work the next day.

As we had an extra couple of days off work we spent the next day at the floating village an hour out of town. I loved the people there, such a community feel and the kids were adorable. 

We had a Cambodian BBQ in the evening along Pub Street and enjoyed a beer (Phil) and a massage (me) before heading back.

It was so good to go back to Cambodia as my trip a few years ago was so short I really wasn't able to get a sense of the country at all. Siem Reap is a bustling but small city and I would happily go back again next week!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A whistle stop tour of Sri Lanka

Last week I met an old friend for a tornado trip of Sri Lanka. I flew 4 hours from Changi to Colombo and arrived just over an hour later thanks to the time difference.

We had booked a driver for the week as it seemed the easiest and most efficient way to see the island, particularly as we were doing a very peculiar route as a way to cram everything in to the trip. The first morning we were up before the sun and drove all the way to the east coast to Yala National Park. We hopped on a Jeep and drove around for hours spotting mongoose, deer, water buffalo, wild boar, elephants, black and red faced monkeys, painted storks, crocodiles and peacocks. I was gutted I didn't take my SLR as some of the things we saw were incredible. Everyone stopped to look at a leopard sitting in a tree in the distance, but to be honest it was so far away it could have been anything.

We had our first taste of Sri Lankan food that evening at Richards Cabanas. Curried beetroot, sweet potato and beans, daal, popadum, spicy onion relish and salty aubergine. It was all delicious!

The following day we were on the road again towards Nuwara Eliya. They call it Little England and I could see why. The little houses, windy streets and rolling hills really reminded me of home. It was also freezing cold which was a bit of a shock to the system after living in Singapore for so long! Along the way to NE we stopped off at a waterfall (I can't remember the name) and also Glenloch tea factory to learn about the different tea produced in the area. 

The next day we walked 19km around the Horton Plains at sunrise. Green valleys, flowing rivers, floating mist, the sound of frogs and birds waking up. It was bucolic.

One of the reasons the Horton Plains are so well known is due to the famed World's End and Cloud Forest. Essentially a cliff edge with clouds behind so you feel like everything ends right in front of you - the photo doesn't do it justice.

The next stop was Mirissa and the last place we visited together before I headed home and my pal continued on for another two weeks exploration of the island. We stayed at a hotel called Paradise Beach Club which was pretty good in comparison to the hostel we stayed in in NE. The pool backed onto the beach and we were able to sit about reading and relaxing. The initial idea was to go whale watching, I'm a bit disappointed I didn't go ahead and do it but it was lovely to relax and have no plans for a whole day.

I've spent the past year in Asia and before coming to Sri Lanka, I assumed it would look and feel different - less tropical perhaps. But driving through the country I kept forgetting where I was and thinking I was in Indo or Malaysia. Overall I did really enjoy Sri Lanka as it was good to go somewhere new and catch up with my pal but I do feel like we rushed around too much. If I was to do it again I'd pick a different route to avoid 7 hour car journeys!

Monday, 14 August 2017

Exploring Borneo

Our first stop was My Nature Resort in Sandakan, just 20mins from airport. It was beautiful. We relaxed by the pool, had cocktails on the veranda and at 6.30pm as the sun was setting, we watched huge red flying squirrels soar from one tree to another to begin their night of hunting. They're the size and weight of cats and can soar hundreds of metres. We were really lucky to see them.

The next morning we went to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Most of the orangutans there had been found as people's pets somewhere in Asia, and the idea of the centre is to slowly rehabilitate them into the wild. We saw a few of the the littluns at the nursery then onto the outdoor feeding platform where a mother and baby, along with a cheeky male stopped to grab a bite to eat. We also saw some of the rescued Sun Bears which are apparently the smallest species of bear.

That afternoon, we got a boat over Abai Lodge to have lunch, then on to Kilamantan River Lodge where we stayed for two nights. During our stay we took a boat out for a few river cruises and were lucky enough to see salt water crocodiles, long and short tailed macaws, proboscis monkeys, red leaf monkeys, wild orangutans, kingfishers, hornbills and a snake.

Saltwater crocodiles looks so different to ones I've seen before with spiny, dragon like tails. We were told that they're quite dangerous over here and get the local fisherman every now and then.

The proboscis monkeys were brilliant - making odd moaning noises to one another and wiggling their falic noses. They have two stomachs to process the leaves they eat, which gives them a beer-belly.

The red leaf monkeys were beautiful and bouncing around from tree to tree. They have amazing cheekbones, black faces and kind of a wise expression.

As well as the boat tours, we also took a trip to the Gomantong Caves to learn about the birds nests and see the bats leaving for their night of hunting. I have never seen so much poo. The cave was piled high with bat feaces and every wall was covered with spiders, cockroaches and other bugs. Looking up on one side was a huge black mass of birds and their nests, and on the other was a rippling expanse of over 2 million bats. As dusk came, the bats flew in a swarm up and out the top of the cave. It was cool to see, but I was a bit preoccupied with getting cockroaches in my shoes and bat poop on my head at that point.

We learnt that once the chicks have fledged their nests, they are harvested and sold to the Chinese for large sums of money. 1kg of nest costs between 3000-6000 ringitt. They put it in soups with lots of sugar and the idea is that it prevents aging. Who knows if it's true, but some people are making a lot of money from it!

We met some really cool people on the trip - Sarah and Dela - a couple from Cirencester, as well as a family from Essex.  We have plans to see Sarah and Dela at Japan 2020 Olympics. I hope we do.

The thing that has shocked me most about Borneo is the palm tree plantations. The plantations go on and on as far as the eye can see - and this is all at the expense of the natural rainforests. It's how the people of Borneo make their money, so who am I to say it's wrong. But it just doesn't feel right when so much wildlife lose their homes to palm trees producing oil to fry our chips and burgers in MacDonalds!

We got a blink-and-you-miss-it flight from Sandakan to Tawau then drove a couple of hours over to Semporna. The next morning we were up early again to get a boat over to Mabul where we would be staying for the next few days.

Mabul is a tiny little island just east of Borneo. We were diving with a company called Scuba Junkie which is based right next to the islands sea gypsies who use explosives to fish and leave all their trash in the ocean. Scuba Junkie do a weekly clean up of the surrounding oceans and the explosives have now been banned in the area. It's still not great though.

The diving was incredible. We saw huge Green and Hawksbill Turtles, Stingrays, and Eagle Ray, dancing Frog Fish, Trumpet and Cornet Fish, Moray Eels, and all the other usual suspects on the reef like Bat, Clown, Angel Fish etc. There were also invisible jellyfish which got me three separate times during my dives! 

Both Phil and I have developed a new respect for Nudibranches. Dive masters always bang on about them and we never understood why, but after seeing so many different colours, shapes and sizes on the trip I now kinda like them too.

Our last day of diving was in Sipadan and it was out of this world! We did 4 dives around the island, the best of which was called Barracuda Point.

We saw upwards of 50 turtles, a huge shoal of Barracuda and another whirlwind shoal of Jack Fish we got lost in.

There were also Black Tip, White Tip and Grey Reef Sharks. We swam into the blue at one point and saw a shoal/shiver of Grey Sharks, it was unreal.

My favourite were the huge Bumphead Parrot Fish which look quite scary with their beaks but are completely harmless. All they do is swim and poop which we got caught up in along the way..

I've never been on a trip like it - I feel really lucky to have seen such an array of beautiful birds, mammals and reptiles and fish in the wild!